Healing Hounds bring joy to patients and nursing home residents

By Kevin Zimmerman

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Although conclusive data is hard to come by, many in the health care profession agree that pet visits — especially by dogs — to hospitals, nursing homes and other such facilities can be beneficial to patients and staff alike.

“When a patient is in a hospital, they’re usually not happy with all the poking and probing that comes with serving their medical needs,” said Deborah Fedeli, director of patient-centered services and volunteer programs at Stamford Hospital. “The opportunity to engage with pets and volunteers can help them feel more ‘normal,’ which is what it’s all about.”

Fedeli agrees with research that has found that interacting with dogs can help lower blood pressure, relax patients facing long stays or surgery, and generally improve demeanors. “There’s a whole protocol and process in place,” she said. “The dogs we have come in and visit almost every unit we have.”

Stamford makes use of Healing Hounds, a service started in 2002 by Greenwich resident Dana Neuman. Nineteen teams of dogs of various sizes and breeds, along with their handlers, make weekly visits, “and there’s always someone here every day of the week,” Fedeli said.

“I was looking to give back and I wanted to work with my dog,” Neuman explained about Healing Hounds’ genesis. “Stamford Hospital was looking for holistic healing ideas, and it was a match.”

At the time, she said, pet therapy was a relatively new idea, “and certification was not a thing.” Today, all Healing Hounds and their humans who visit hospitals and schools are required to be formally certified by such groups as The Good Dog Foundation, Therapy Dog International and Pet Partners. The last organization, which is based in Bellevue, Wash., and which certifies Healing Hounds participants, has grown to almost 14,000 teams across the U.S. and makes approximately 1 million visits each year.

Certification typically involves basic obedience training (sit, down, stand, stay, walk on a loose lead), “gentling” exercises to desensitize dogs to handling and stimuli, familiarization with hospital equipment and socialization exercises with other dogs and people. With Pet Partners, animals and their handlers complete skills and aptitude tests to evaluate how well the team can manage in an unfamiliar setting, such as a nursing home, hospital or school, as well as their ability to navigate around health care equipment such as wheelchairs and walkers.

In addition to coordinating visits at Stamford Hospital, Neuman recruits and coordinates for the Greenwich public school system and Byram Shubert Library, Cos Cob Library “and the occasional college looking for exam stress relief.”

With the new Stamford Hospital now open, Neuman said she’s on the lookout for more teams. In addition, she said, “I have an email list of 105 therapy-certified teams that I can tap into when I learn of a facility looking for visits.”

She said that partnering with a facility is relatively easy. “If we are interested in visiting a particular facility, we ask. At this point it is easy to get recommendations.” She notes that handlers are all volunteers, and “The dogs don’t get paid either.”

One such Healing Hounds volunteer is Elizabeth Ball, president/creative director of TFI Envision, Inc., a Norwalk firm that develops design and marketing solutions for branding, packaging, promotion, digital and corporate communications. Along with “Honey, the Havanese office dog,” Ball makes weekly visits to Stamford Hospital and has routinely visited area nursing homes as well.

“There are so many opportunities for therapy animals, especially dogs, available,” she said. “All of us are so well-received. We help people take their minds off of being there, talk with them about whether they have or had a pet. Even some patients who say they don’t like pets welcome the distraction when we come by.”

Ball said her interest in getting certified came about a couple of years ago when she used to take her canine companion at the time, Grizzly, to a field near a nursing home. “I noticed whenever we were there that all these people would come to the windows to look at us. I finally asked their volunteer office if they’d be interested in me taking the dog in to them, and they did. It was a wonderful experience.”

Even patients suffering from Alzheimer’s or other dementia can benefit, she said. “They couldn’t necessarily remember their own kids’ names, but they knew Liz and Grizz.”

In addition to patients, Ball said, tail-wagging guests can benefit patients’ families and facility staff. “Parents with young children who are seeing a loved one really appreciate it. The children see the dog, sit on the floor and play with it, and they forget all about how scary the situation is.”

As for staff, “Their day is so stressful,” she said. “To be able to take a few minutes’ break to get some loving and attention is a great help, and is also good for the dog … who truly believes that everyone is there for her benefit.”

Ball said that through the training that comes with the certification program, dogs can usually “read” the room they’re entering. “If it’s a room where things are somber, they tend to be very quiet and lay there like a mop to be petted for 30 minutes. Other rooms are more exciting in a way and they’ll be more animated.”

“Some folks want to see the dogs and some don’t,” Fedeli said. “But for those who do, it’s a great opportunity to spread some sunshine.”

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